Kyoto has so many shrines & temples, where do you even start?
There’s no way you can see them all in a short visit (I haven’t come close even after many visits and living there for over a year), and if you tried you’d soon find yourself suffering from a bad case of temple fatigue.
It’s common to hear of people being ‘templed out’, and it’s true – if you visit a whole string of them but you’re not sure exactly what it is you’re seeing, they do all sort of blend in to one long blur of wooden buildings with bells, gates, and statues. You can find yourself standing in a beautiful, centuries-old temple compound thinking it’s ‘just another temple.’
To avoid this it’s really best to not overdo it, and just pick out a handful of standout temples & shrines to visit during your time in the city.
That’s what I failed to do on my first visit to Kyoto – the information online wasn’t so useful at that point and I was mostly going on the text descriptions in Lonely Planet. The end result was that although I visited some undeniably nice places, I missed all the most amazing ones and ended up being a little underwhelmed by Kyoto first time around.
When I went back and lived there a few years later I had time to really explore, and realised what I’d missed that first time. Most significantly I’d missed Fushimi Inari, which I then ended up living round the corner from and which became my favourite place in Japan – so much so that I’ve written thousands of words about it!
I still haven’t been to every single temple & shrine in Kyoto – nowhere close – but I have been to all the most important ones plus a good number of less well-known ones, and I know which ones I recommend to first-time visitors to the city.
If you’re lucky enough to be in Kyoto for the cherry blossoms or the autumn colours, certain shrines & temples come into their own at those times; see my posts on cherry blossom spots and autumn leaf spots.
Kyoto District Walks
Most of Kyoto’s best shrines & temples can be covered on walks around the following districts:
Higashiyama & Gion
Fushimi Inari & Tofukuji
Philosopher’s Path, Nanzenji & Ginkakuji
If you’re a walker, spending 2 or 3 days doing the above 3 routes will take you to most of the best shrines & temples in Kyoto, and give you a great feel for the city’s different districts. Missing from the above are Arashiyama & the Kinkakuji area, which you can cover in a day as per here.
Unmissable Kyoto Sites
There are two sites which I’d say are unmissable and should form the focal points of your Kyoto itinerary, whether you have just one day or a full week.
Fushimi Inari 伏見稲荷
The standout of the lot, and not just my favourite place in Kyoto but my favourite in all Japan. I had the good fortune to live next to Mt Inari for a year and have been there many, many times – I’ve written a number of posts about it, see the main one here for more details, photos, access, hiking routes, etc.
It’s a lovely temple in its own right, consisting of a series of magnificent old wooden buildings and platforms (erected on supporting wooden stilts constructed on the hillside without use of nails), arranged around the mountain spring for which the temple is named (Kiyomizu means ‘clear water’). But what really makes it great to visit is the location, perched on the Higashiyama slopes near the Gion district and approached via the nicely preserved historical quarter of the Sannenzaka and Ninenzaka steps.
The steep, narrow streets are lined with cafés & restaurants and tourist trinket shops, and a number of art galleries and pottery workshops (Kiyomizu pottery is a famous regional pottery style, and there’s some magnificent stuff on display and for sale).
It’s all highly photogenic, and while some might complain it’s ‘too touristy’ it’s very much a living, breathing historical district and not some ersatz tourist trap. The hordes of tourists are there for good reason! You can walk up from the bus stop on Higashiyama-dori or from Kiyomizu-gojo Station on the Keihan Line (bit of a walk), or walk it from Gion.
Famous Kyoto shrines & temples I particularly recommend visiting
The main grounds are free to wander and include an imposing main gate and a famous aqueduct, part of the Lake Biwa Canal system. The many maple trees make Nanzenji a great place for the autumn colours, and there are also some beautiful gardens to check out (with paid entry). Nanzenji’s located near the southern end of the Philosopher’s Path.
This temple in the middle of the Gion teahouse district has one of the best temple interiors I’ve seen, well worth the entrance fee (if you don’t want to pay for entry, skip this temple – the exterior is also nice, but not more so than you’ll see elsewhere). There are a couple of classical Japanese gardens in different styles, an impressive ceiling fresco of twin thunder dragons, and this famous screen painting of Fujin & Raijin, the wind & lightning gods:
Kenninji & Kodaiji are included in this Gion walking route.
Located between Kiyomizu and Kenninji, this temple is particularly renowned for the spring cherry blossoms and autumn colours in its various gardens. Entry is paid, so in other seasons it’s probably skippable in favour of Kenninji. Immediately nextdoor is the Ryozen Kannon statue, it has separate entry tickets and is worth popping in whether or not you visit Kodaiji.
Less visited Kyoto shrines & temples I highly recommend
This is actually my personal favourite of all the Buddhist temples in Kyoto, a place where I’ve had a few moments of quiet reflection while wrestling with life decisions. It’s not as imposing and impressive as some of the larger temples in the city, but it’s as pretty as they come – walk through the recently restored sanmon gate, across the humped bridge over the pond, and up through the peaceful cemetery to the 3-storied pagoda to gaze out over northern Kyoto, and you might just find yourself having a moment of quiet reflection too. It’s a good place for it.
Kurodani’s particularly nice when the cherry blossoms around the pond bloom, but doesn’t get the crazy cherry blossom crowds that descend on other better-known sites. If you’re in Kyoto for the blossoms, definitely put this one on your itinerary.
Kurodani’s located northeast of (i.e. behind) Heian Shrine, on the other side of Marutamachi-dori. It’s walkable from the Philosopher’s Path, though a bit of a detour. Note Kurodani’s official name is Konkaikoumyouji (金戒光明寺), which is what you’ll probably see if you search on Google Maps.
If Kurodani is my insider tip for cherry blossom season, Shinnyodo’s my insider tip for the autumn colours – it’s stunningly beautiful, yet somehow doesn’t get the worst of the autumn crowds seen elsewhere (perhaps due to the lack of immediate transportation access).
(Kurodani and Shinnyodo stand on opposite sides of the same hill – from the hilltop pagoda at Kurodani, take the path to the left (when facing the pagoda) and follow it through the cemetery to Shinnyodo)
Atago Jinja 愛宕神社
A humble shrine on top of Kyoto’s highest mountain (Mt Atago), this one’s on the list mostly for the hike up to it (if you’re not a hiker, scratch this one off); however, it’s also got some outstanding wood-carved panel frescos which are handmade by the priests stationed up there.
Kurama-dera 鞍馬寺 & Kibune Jinja 貴船神社
Another one you hike up to, though it’s quite a big temple and it’s on a smaller mountain with an easier trail so it gets a lot more visitors than Atago. Kurama-dera is where the legendary hero Yoshitsune spent his childhood exile, learning swordsmanship from the Tengu King in the enchanted forest behind the temple. If you’ve walked up to Kurama, continue on down the other side through the tengu forest to Kibune and Kifune Shrine; see here for hiking route and access details.
Other famous Kyoto shrines & temples to consider
These next 3 temples – Kinkakuji, Ryoanji, and Ninnaji – are located close together along Kinukake Road; although I don’t consider them individually to be among the city’s unmissable temples, visiting them in one go is half a day well-spent. You can easily continue on to Arashiyama (or vice versa) to make a day of it. There’s even a dedicated (and very informative & well done) Kinukake website with a guide to doing exactly this, complete with its own mascot (there’s definitely a bit of mascot overkill going on in Japan, but this one actually has quite an interesting backstory).
The Golden Temple, usually referred to in Japanese as Kinkakuji, is probably the single most famous image of Kyoto. I don’t personally enjoy visiting it, and consider the entry fee to be a bit if a rip-off. Not that it isn’t a gorgeous building and a nice photo opportunity – it’s certainly both of those things – but it’s essentially a bit of a tourist cattle-herd experience. You pay your money, go through the entry gate, and jostle elbows while you wait your turn to get the classic snap from the viewpoint by the pond. You then follow a set route along the pathway through the gardens to the exit, with the only optional variation being to sit and have matcha at the teahouse. It’s all over very quickly, and doesn’t really have any aura of mystery to it (especially when you know the existing structure is a 1955 reconstruction – the original was burned down in 1950 by a suicidal monk)
Home to Japan’s most famous rock garden, with 9 rocks arranged such that you can only ever see 8 from the viewing platform. The garden encapsulates the concept of wabi sabi, a key aesthetic in traditional Japanese culture, and it’s a cool spot to sit in quiet contemplation. Or rather, it would be – but to be honest you can’t usually get much contemplation of wabi sabi done what with all the waving of selfie sticks and clicking of cameras.
In addition to the rock garden there’s an extensive garden set around a small lake which looks brilliant in autumn.
A bit further along Kinukake Road from Kinkakuji & Ryoanji you come to Ninnaji, famed for its late-blooming blossoms in mid-April (when the petals elsewhere have already fallen) and with an awesome pair of guardian statues at the front gate.
The most significant temple – of many – in Arashiyama, Tenryuji has a highly regarded landscape garden and a famous ceiling fresco of a cloud dragon (Tenryuji literally means ‘Temple of the Sky Dragon’); I wouldn’t cross the city just for Tenryuji, but the Arashiyama district is well worth half a day (or more) of your time.
Ginkakuji, the Silver Temple, is of similar size and design to the Golden Temple across the city, but rather than the golden bling it has a humble wooden exterior. The ‘silver’ name refers to the original plan to finish it with silver foil, but this never happened and the temple’s permanently unfinished state is another example of the wabi sabi aesthetic.
It isn’t the most impressive temple you’ll see, but it’s certainly pretty and captures a similar sense of wabi sabi as does Ryoanji; the gardens are nice too, and I find the Silver Temple more satisfying to visit than the Golden Temple.
Its location at the northern end of the Philosopher’s Path makes it easy to visit in conjunction with that & Nanzenji.
A massive temple that would be the pride of any other city, Tofukuji sees few visitors outside the autumn colour season – at which time it gets absolutely inundated with sightseers and photographers.
Though pehaps not an essential temple on your Kyoto itinerary, it’s in the vicinity of Fushimi Inari so if you like walking you can visit them both on a half-day walk like this.
Toji’s 5-story pagoda, visible from the Shinkansen, is one of the symbols of Kyoto. The area around it’s quite run down, and I wouldn’t make this one a priority – but if you find yourself in need of something to do near Kyoto Station for an hour or two, Toji fits the bill.
Yasaka jinja 八坂神社
Yasaka Shrine stands on one side of the Gion district and is best visited as part of Gion, along with Maruyama Park behind it (as included in this walking route)
Heian shrine 平安神宮
The main shrine buildings are nice enough, but the gardens are the highlight – if you’re only willing to pay entry to one garden in Kyoto, Heian Shrine’s a good call. If you’re a fan of Lost In Translation, this is where you’ll find the stepping stones and courtyard seen (from 1:55) in this beautiful sequence:
(The other location, where she observes the wedding, is Nanzenji)
An enormous temple complex occupying the summit of Mt Hiei, Enryakuji is of great historical importance. The location makes it a good day out (or, for many, too much effort to bother with), and it’s a great goal for a hike up holy Mt Hiei.
Any questions about the shrines & temples of Kyoto? Give me a shout below and I’ll get back to you.
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Photo credits: xiquinhosilva (Ninnaji), kuribo (Ryoanji), Yu-Jheng Fang (Ginkakuji). All via Flickr and used under cc
Thanks for the guide on recommended shrines & temples. I’m visiting Kyoto in late December (hopefully the low season), so I won’t be seeing cherry blossoms or autumn leaves. I am not huge on temples and shrines but I’m happy to see a few.
Would you make any different suggestions based on that time of year? I know Kiyomizu-dera in under renovation so I’m not sure how much that impacts the experience?
Ideally I’d like to see temples with differing architecture and/or nice gardens inside (at that time of year). I have about 2-3 days set aside for Kyoto, including a side trip to Nara.
I’d make the same recommendations for winter pretty much, including Kiyomizu. It’s obviously not ideal to see it while under renovation, but it’s still worth going due to the setting and walking up to it via the Ninenzaka and Sannenzaka steps (see here).
Fushimi Inari is always great, especially if you’re lucky and catch a snow day. The other one I’d head to if it snows is the Golden Temple (not my favourite, but looks fantastic with snow). It doesn’t snow all that much in Kyoto usually, but it’s a possibility in late December.
And as you’re interested in gardens I’d suggest definitely including Heian Shrine and paying to enter the garden there. Lots of other temples have noted gardens (e.g. Kodaiji, Eikando, Tofukuji, Nanzenji) but Heian’s is the most impressive. You could also easily visit Kodaiji en route to Kiyomizu, and if you do go to the Golden Temple it’s in a nice garden of its own and also Ryoanji is just along the same road with its famous rock garden.
Hope this helps and give me a shout if you have any more questions. Cheers!